“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Local control, short terms and Vermont's citizen legislature

Ethan Allen, the unpredictable frontier rebel who rallied resistance during the revolution era, has exerted a powerful influence over Vermont’s image as a refuge for rugged individualists and defiant outsiders. Both the true and mythical aspects of his story have helped ingrain an affinity with rebels and independent thinkers.

House Chamber
Nevertheless, the political values that have more consistently influenced the state are accountability, local control and autonomy. Frequently crossing party lines, they have persisted from the time in which Vermont was known as reliably Republican, a place where not even FDR could win an election, to the decades since 1988, when Vermonters have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate.

Beneath the differing political labels is a common approach to governance. The state’s administrative structure is relatively centralized, but government has remained more accountable than most through the retention of short terms of office, a citizen legislature, and the pull of local control. 

Localism is a long cherished value. Even when Gov. Deane Davis, a Nixon Republican, backed a state land use law in the late 1960s, he felt the need to call it “creative localism.” Town Meeting has a powerful enduring influence, both practical and symbolic. As a last vestige of direct democracy, it holds out hope that self-government remains possible in the age of powerful administrative states. The stakes may be overstated at time, but the use of this forum – in some cases the only one available – can be a form of self-empowerment reminiscent of the early Jeffersonian impulse.

With Vermont’s “citizen legislature” meeting four days a week for up to five months, House and Senate members can still return to other work. Due to the state’s size, many of them can also drive home at night during sessions. The pay is modest, but the State House functions much like a graduate school for motivated students. Some are in training for higher office. Most stay in touch with their home base.

Nevertheless, political leaders have frequently advocated a proposal bound to alter the dynamic: a constitutional amendment to extend the terms of some or all statewide offices to four years. In the late 1950s a Commission to Study State Government – known as the “Little Hoover Commission” for its similarity to a federal effort in the 1940s led by the former president – concluded that forcing candidates to campaign for re-election so often was a waste of money and detrimental to the state’s welfare.

The necessary amendment failed in the legislature, but was brought back repeatedly over the next decades. In 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, it was voted down on Town Meeting Day.

Governor Snelling recommended four-year terms for the governor and lieutenant governor “as a team” in his 1983 inaugural address. His rationale was that the “structure and complexity of our society and the value of experienced administrative leadership” had both increased.

Many democratic and Republican leaders supported the idea, including all eight former Vermont governors still alive at the time. Supporters of longer terms frequently cited the increased expense of campaigns and the need for more continuity in program implementation.

The opposition was diverse and unusual, however, ranging from Secretary of State James Guest, a Democrat, and Senate Government Operations Chair Bill Doyle, a Republican, to UVM professor Frank Bryan and anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin. Once more the proposal, which would have required approval in two consecutive sessions and voter acceptance in a referendum, failed to make it out of the legislature.

Most other states extended terms of office long ago. Beyond a suspicion of politicians and the power of Vermont traditions, another reason that hasn’t happened in Vermont can be traced back to the last of the conventions called by the old Council of Censors.

When terms of office were doubled to two years in 1870, the amendment process was also changed. The legislature would henceforth initiate any constitutional innovations, but only once every ten years. This “time lock” provision was later shortened to five year intervals, but has remained a deterrent to rapid changes in the structure and processes of government.
Vermont doesn’t have a provision for referendum by public petition. In 1890, legislation approved the printing of Australian ballots by state government to be used at town meetings.  Since then, the state has continued to influence the nature of local politics. Lawmakers can request endorsement of a decision in a Town Meeting referendum, for example.  Exercising the authority to seek local opinion led to the enactment of the “local option” for alcohol in 1902, and to the defeat of the proposed Green Mountain Parkway in 1936.

Burlington's City Council in session.

These political traditions – local control, short terms and a citizen legislature – as well as small-scale, decentralist impulses, reflect Vermont’s fundamental commitment to individual autonomy. The original Greek idea is self-rule. Valued for its contribution to the search for truth and the functioning of a self-governing society, autonomy involves making conscious choices. Without this basic form of self-management democracy can’t succeed.

According to libertarian philosopher Murray Bookchin, who lived in Vermont for decades, Self-rule also applies to society as a whole. “Self-management is the management of villages, neighborhoods, towns, and cities,” he wrote. “The technical sphere of life is conspicuously secondary to the social. In the two revolutions that open the modern era of secular politics – the American and French – self-management emerges in the libertarian town meetings that swept from Boston to Charleston and the popular sections that assembled in Parisian quatiers."

Total individual autonomy can be an illusion. Whether acknowledged or not, all humans are influenced by social needs and impulses, cultural norms and values. But fundamentally, autonomy is a powerful aspiration that pulls human beings toward self-sufficiency, moral courage and personal development. It is the basic quest for identity, the search for self-actualization studied and debated by psychologists, theologians and social theorists.

In Vermont, this quest underpinned the struggles of early settlers against outside control during the revolutionary era. Active dissent began when they organized to declare themselves free of British rule and exploitation by land speculators. Since then, an instinctive preference for autonomy has fueled numerous Vermont campaigns of resistance and direct, sometimes dramatic challenges to state and federal overreach.